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Friday, 1 May 1987
Page: 2154

Senator TEAGUE(9.48) —The Senate is debating the Equal Employment Opportunity (Commonwealth Authorities) Bill 1987. I am a Liberal senator for South Australia. As a Liberal, I firmly believe in equality of opportunity for all Australians. That includes my actively pursuing sound measures for better achieving equal employment opportunities. As a senator, I firmly believe that this chamber of the Parliament is a House of review where we take into account all the prior discussion in the community, in the Party and in the House of Representatives. As a South Australian, I firmly believe that I should represent all the people of my State and act here in a way that is honestly and genuinely accountable to them. It is with these three principles in my mind that I support this Bill. In my view, the Bill does conform to Liberal principles of equality of opportunity and clearly embraces the particular relevant parts of the Liberal Federal platform. This legislation seeks equality for Australian women, migrant Australians, Aboriginal Australians and Australians with disabilities. This legislation seeks equality for these designated groups on the clear basis of merit.

I have made these introductory statements of my own position because this assessment is shared by some of my colleagues, but not all. I regret that my parliamentary Party has resolved not to support this legislation.

Senator Chaney —In the absence of amendments.

Senator TEAGUE —Yes, in the absence of amendments. I am genuinely unconvinced by the arguments that have been expressed by Mr Neil Brown, our Party's earlier spokesman on this matter, and by Senator Chaney, who is our spokesman now. I respect the views of my colleagues but I do not agree with their conclusion. I am genuinely convinced, both intellectually and politically, that the argument lies with the support of this measure. This is not a law about quotas but about merit. It is not a radical or even innovative measure. Rather, it is consistent with the two earlier equal opportunity Bills that my Party and I have firmly supported and the Parliament has enacted. This is not a trespass on the rights of any individual Australian; rather, it is a further step towards facilitating the rights of all. This legislation is what I and my Liberal colleagues clearly called for in this Parliament last year. We all called for it. Three years ago we all supported the Public Service Reform Bill 1984, which established equal employment opportunity in the Commonwealth Public Service, with provisions similar to those in the Bill before us now. One year ago we all supported the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Bill 1986, which established equal employment opportunity in higher education institutions and in private enterprise, again with provisions similar to those in the Bill now before us.

In the course of last year's debate I and my Liberal colleagues moved numerous amendments-there were more than 20 of real substance-in our attempt to improve that legislation. For example, we pointed out the error of the title of the 1986 Bill, the reference to affirmative action. We reject the original meaning of this term, we reject the concept in the popular usage, because I and all Liberals I have ever met oppose quotas in employment. However, we were unsuccessful in our attempt to remove the words `affirmative action' in favour of our genuine support for the preferred and more accurate term `equal employment opportunity'. I note, as a tribute to the argument that was put then, that the Bill which is before us now is called an equal employment opportunity Bill. But despite our failure to get that change in the title last year and despite many of our amendments not being supported by Government or Australian Democrat senators, we all, at the end of the day, supported both the second and third readings of the Bill. We all supported the 1986 equal employment opportunity Bill, despite the failure of some of our amendments, because we preferred the unamended Bill to having no Bill at all. There was an intellectual and political judgment to be made. In the balance of arguments we supported the 1986 Bill. I must add that this Liberal support gave great heart to many people, men and women, in all parts of Australia, because this measure was seen by them as an active and positive step towards a more just Australia, a fairer Australia, and a step towards achieving a more genuine equality of opportunity here. That was and is also my own view.

The point I wish to make is that during the 1986 debate we as Liberals-my colleague Senator Peter Baume was our spokesman then-took the initiative to call for not just the 1984 legislation, not just the 1986 legislation, but a third measure; that is, the extension of equal employment opportunity to Commonwealth statutory authorities. We meant statutory authorities such as Telecom Australia, Australia Post and the Commonwealth Banking Corporation-these major semi-government business enterprises. We thought that they should respond to the same employment requirements as the Commonwealth Public Service, the universities and colleges and the major free enterprise companies.

The 1987 Bill that is now before us is in fact the measure that we called for last year. As Liberals we called for an extension of equal employment opportunity legislation to statutory authorities, and this is the Bill that we have. It is my honest assessment that there is no substantial difference between what we called for and what we have.

When I examine this 1987 legislation I see that there are three amendments which I think will improve the provisions of the Bill. The first of these amendments would exclude contractors from the definition of `employee' but I must point out that the 1986 legislation, as adopted, includes the reference to contractors. The second amendment would better express and clarify the references to objectives and forward estimates in an equal employment program. The third amendment would alter the reporting requirements for the statutory authorities so that they are parallel to the reporting requirement set out in the 1986 legislation.

These are the three amendments which the Liberal Party is initiating to improve the Bill. They are the only amendments we are proposing to the text of this Bill. They have been circulated in the Senate and will be dealt with in the Committee stage. I should add that at the conclusion of the second reading debate we have one more amendment-a procedural amendment-which refers the Bill to the Business Regulation Review Unit for fuller examination of its financial impact. The three textual amendments and the one procedural amendment together make up the totality of my Party's suggestions for improving this legislation. These four amendments are all worthy and I will support them, but in my view not one of them is crucial. They would all be improvements but not one of these changes would significantly alter the legislation.

Those of my colleagues who disagree with this Bill say that if these four amendments were accepted by the Government they would vote in support of the legislation. On 25 March in the House of Representatives debate on this Bill the leading speaker for the Liberal Party, the honourable member for Menzies (Mr N. A. Brown), said:

It must be emphasised that, subject to the Government also agreeing to a number of significant amendments that I will foreshadow and refer to shortly-

He went on to refer to the three Committee stage amendments that we have before us in the Senate concerning contractors, forward estimates and reporting and to another concerning designated groups-

we will support this Bill if the Government undertakes not to proceed with it until it is subjected to the business review process . . . If it passes muster then . . . we will support this Bill.

That is clear enough. My colleagues are telling the Government that if it accepts these few amendments all Liberal Party members will support the Bill. I respect the views of my colleagues but when I consider in turn each of the amendments which stand in the way of support for the Bill, it does not surprise me that some people have written to me claiming that placing emphasis on the amendments is `nitpicking, splitting hairs and pedantic'. Many people see these small issues as an inadequate basis on which to claim that there is a significant difference between the present and previous equal employment opportunity legislation.

Let us look at these amendments one by one, remembering that these are the only matters which stand in the way of full acceptance of the Bill. I stress that they are all that stand in the way of full acceptance by every senator, as I understand the situation. First, let us look at the matter concerning the Business Regulation Review Unit. Earlier this week the Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce (Senator Button) stated clearly at Question Time that the Business Regulation Review Unit has had the opportunity to review the financial impact of this Bill. It appears that the Unit thinks that there will not be a major financial impact. I ask the Government to table the findings of the Unit because that would satisfy the amendment which the Liberals are moving and I am supporting at the conclusion of the second reading debate. Secondly, there is the question of contractors. We proposed this exact amendment to the 1986 Bill but we were unsuccessful then. We will do it again this time and I hope we are successful. Nevertheless, it was no barrier to our supporting the Bill last year. I see no sound reason for not doing the same again.

The third matter regards the definition of forward estimates. I support again this amendment to improve the proposal. We propose to clarify the Bill's reference to quantitative targets in employment levels as being just that-targets, not quotas and not even possibly interpretable as quotas. Our amendment clarifies the Bill's own intention, according to everyone who has spoken in the House of Representatives and in the Senate. The Bill's intention is that there be targets and not quotas, and we are seeking to amend the words to clarify the expression to ensure that they are to our keener satisfaction interpreted according to the intention of the Bill. Mr N. A. Brown in the House of Representatives referred to this aspect not as quotas but as possibly opening the door to quotas. I respect that view and that is why we seek to clarify. I do not have that view myself. His actual words were:

. . . a very definite step towards the imposition of compulsory quotas.

But he was quick to add in his dissection of these fine points about words:

All of these matters are matters for judgment but, taking the present Bill as a whole and making a rational assessment of the thrust of it and what it is clearly seeking to achieve, it is beyond doubt that the substance of the proposal is that the equal employment opportunity programs provided for in the Bill have taken a very definite step towards specific and quantitative programs which are in effect the equivalent of quotas.

I am one who is unconvinced by my colleague's analysis. I remind the Senate again of this weak conclusion. I call it `weak' because it is qualification upon qualification. I am good humoured about my own speeches and the speeches of my colleagues. Frankly, I am reminded of some episodes of Alice in Wonderland-a cloud of language, and I am not convinced. Are we truly expecting the public to embrace all this with any conviction? I do not and I cannot.

The fourth amendment refers to uniformity of reporting procedures. This would be a gain, but it is an accountant's gain and a clerk's gain, and it is so minor, I put to the Senate--

Senator Chaney —Reporting to the Parliament?

Senator TEAGUE —No. Of course reporting to the Parliament is essential and the Bill provides for reporting to Parliament. But this fourth matter is to change the reporting requirements slightly so that they are more parallel with the 1986 reporting requirements. I call that conformity of reporting procedure a minor matter. I ask whether anyone-even Senator Chaney-would say that, if all the other amendments were agreed to, this would be the barrier to stop any senator from crossing the brink and supporting the Bill. I do not believe that it is a major matter.

There was a reference by some to the definition of `designated group'. As I understand it, the Acts Interpretation Act already restricts the apparent open-endedness of two lines that refer, in an open-ended way, to possibly additional designated groups. I accept the present intention with regard to designated groups such as women, Aboriginals, certain migrants, and the disabled in the definitions that are given in the Bill. Having looked at all of those issues, it is my conclusion that none of them stand in the way of any senator supporting this Bill.

I prefer the advantages of the Bill, even if it were unamended, to having no Bill at all. I think that my Senate colleague and leader, Senator Chaney, who has been listening to my speech-I thank him for that-was accurate when in his speech on the Bill yesterday he referred to `subtle changes' between the 1986 law, which we supported, and the 1987 Bill which is before us now. These subtle changes have not led Senator Chaney to assert that the present Bill squarely introduces quotas; it does not. Clause 3 (4) of the 1987 Bill clearly states:

Nothing in this Act shall be taken to require any action incompatible with the principle that employment matters should be dealt with on the basis of merit.

The Bill does not provide for quotas; it reinforces employment on the basis of merit. I believe the conclusion is unassailable: There is no substantial difference between the 1987 measure and the 1986 Bill which we supported. I believe that the conclusion is unassailable; even now, the three or four reservations which my colleagues have said prevent them embracing the Bill cannot be shown to be substantial. In my view, they are not crucial or significant.

This is the first occasion on which I will cross the floor after almost nine years in the Senate and in the good and welcome Parliamentary Liberal Party. I am in such conscientious disagreement with some of my colleagues that I will vote against them. I respect their views and I have been assured by all of those with whom I have spoken that they respect mine. The reason is that the issue in this Bill is justice, fairness and equality of opportunity for individual Australians. This legislation is only a small step. I do not put forward that this measure will revolutionise Australia.

Senators Powell and Chaney and others who have contributed to the debate can rightly encourage us to see all manner of other injustices-injustices that, even now, are not being responsibly remedied by the present Government; injustices that relate to poverty, and injustices that are of enormous substance. However, the measure that is before us is the one we must consider. I see it as a small step, but it is in the most significant direction.

Senator Puplick —All progress is in small steps.

Senator TEAGUE —I accept Senator Puplick's statement that all progress is in small steps. This legislation is only a small step, but it is a step in the direction of justice, fairness and equality. The arguments that I have heard in opposition to the Bill I view as hollow. I am heart and mind opposed to them because they are fundamentally unconvincing. That I should support the Bill on its merits appears to me to be unassailable. It would be intellectual and political dishonesty for me to do otherwise. As I stand here I can honestly say that I have not felt so moved by any legislation until now, including that minority of occasions when I have expressed a view that is significant and that is not the same as that of my colleagues. I have always been relaxed in my voting in this chamber, and I continue to be in this debate. However, this is not just another Bill. It is not, for example, a Budget Bill about appropriation or expenditure. It is not like many items of legislation that we debate. This Bill involves a principle which I feel very deeply about-equality of opportunity. I honestly want to put my feet where my heart and mind are.

My position on the Bill has been reinforced by the overwhelming views expressed by my own Liberal Party in South Australia. All of the views I have received have been in support of the Bill. The Chairman of the Federal Women's Committee, Trish Worth, who has been a personal friend of my wife's and myself for more than a dozen years, has written to me in these terms:

It is my most sincere hope that the Liberal Party will be able to revert to a position of consistency with our Party Platform by the time this Bill is debated in the Senate.

I quote the following from our Platform under the heading `Women':

Women to have equality of opportunity and freedom of choice to engage in political, civil and community activities, employment and education.

Removal of remaining areas of discrimination against women.

Jobs should be open to all those capable of meeting the employers' specific requirements without regard to sex, age, race, disability, politics or religious beliefs.

The Women's Council of the Liberal Party in South Australia has overwhelmingly carried a resolution in support of this Bill. I should add that the Women's Council in my State is very strong and very active. It includes women of all ages, of all professions and from all walks of life. It is usually regarded as having very conservative elements, but the resolution in support of this Bill that it considered was carried overwhelmingly. The Council's Policy Co-ordinator, Dawn Crosby, has sent to me the terms of that resolution. It states:

With reference to the Equal Employment Opportunity (Commonwealth Authorities) Bill, Women's Council views with disappointment and disillusion, the Federal Parliamentary Party's decision to reverse its earlier commitment to equal opportunity legislation.

The State Council of my Party has also considered this Bill and has determined a view in similar terms. One of the speakers in that State Council consideration, at a meeting in Port Pirie in the mid-north of my State-her name is Mary Cannon and she is an active State Council member-stated:

I have carefully read Hansard and the Bills. We supported the 1984 Bill and the 1986 Bill and I reject the specious reasons which have been given for opposing this Bill, that imposes quotas. They split hairs over words, were pedantic over semantics. I oppose quotas because they would do more harm to women than good.

I have received from Lenore Triplow, the Secretary of the Liberal Women's Network of South Australia, a resolution of the annual general meeting of the network, passed on 14 April, which also expresses strong support for this Bill in similar terms. I have tried as carefully as I can to outline my analysis of the crucial aspects of this legislation. In conclusion, for the reasons that I have given, I will support the Bill.